The current ferment about where and how to manage public recreation in Idyllwild calls to mind a place where Hill folk gathered for amusement in earlier times. I speak of the land now occupied by “The Center of Idyllwild,” better know locally as The Fort.
If we go back to 1904, the site was little more than logged-over bare ground a stone’s throw downhill from the Idyllwild Sanatorium. After that ill-conceived hospital/hotel burned down, the site soon found itself nearly at the doorstep of the Sanatorium’s successor, the Idyllwild Inn, where it would not remain idle for long.
Once Claudius Lee Emerson began to develop the inn after 1917, the site became a bustling place, with the Idyllwild Store and Post Office, a power plant, the Idyllwild Plunge, and ever popular croquet courts. Horseshoe pits were added to the inn’s amenities in 1924. And not far away stood a primitive bowling alley and pool hall.
These facilities continued to serve the community until the Depression bankrupted their owner, Emerson’s Idyllwild Inc. Then, a 1941 fire destroyed the store and post office, and the inn itself burned down in 1945, but through it all the plunge remained a summertime focal point for swimmers and spectators alike.
Idyllwild’s postwar renaissance — the resident population tripled from fewer than 450 to over 1,200 in three years — spurred two leaders of the group that then monopolized downtown Idyllwild, Jerry Johnson and Clifton Russell, to build a new recreation center called Sportland for the 1947 season. Along with the swimming pool, it boasted five bowling lanes, a snack bar and an amusement center.
At summer’s end that year, Johnson and Russell sold Sportland to Percy VanDerMeid and Bob Vevers, but a year later it, too, burned down. Rebuilt and reopened in 1949 with Don Otto as manager, Sportland advertised a “new” Idyllwild Plunge, plus bowling, pool, snooker and a coffee shop. By 1951, an arcade and shooting gallery were added. (Incidentally, it was at this time that the Chamber of Commerce first launched a recreation program at Town Hall, funded by the Lions Club.)
In 1953, Sportland was remodeled with an alpine decor and rechristened “Idyll-Hof,” with Jay Burton now the manager. Otto later returned, and the facility continued to evolve, by 1957 adding ping-pong and miniature golf, and featuring a redecorated café and fountain and a banquet room. In May 1959, Idyll-Hof advertising suddenly disappeared from the Town Crier, and the property appeared to be in decline. But a new chapter was in the offing.
Avery and June Fisher bought the place in 1962 and opened a new, expanded Sportland with not only the bowling alley, swimming pool and miniature golf, but also a roller skating rink, burger bar, ice cream shop, two restaurants (Sportsmen Grill and Carriage Room), an art gallery and several small shops.
But in 1966, Rodney Welch, the developer of Alandale, bought the property and replaced Sportland with a classy restaurant, the Carriage Inn. Thus ended recreation on the Fort site. For the first time in a half-century, the village had no swimming pool — it was demolished to minimize the possibility of having children too close to the bar.
Welch sold out to Glenn Bell, the founder of Taco Bell, who razed the Carriage Inn in 1976, to make way for a shopping center that never materialized. Instead, the land sat vacant for 12 years, until Bell sold it to Idyllwild real estate agent Maureen Jones and Escondido developer Dick Krupp. They built The Fort, which opened in 1992, to the consternation of many with memories of happy times spent there as youngsters.